Courtesy Jud Esty-kendall/storycorps
The minute Joe Serna walked into the Veterans Treatment Court in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he could feel his shoulders tense up, hear his stomach growling. He had come to turn himself in.
Six months earlier, Serna had been arrested for impaired driving. As part of his sentence, he was required to report to Judge Lou Olivera’s court every two weeks to take a urine test and prove he hadn’t been drinking.
Serna had passed every biweekly screening—until the week before. Positive. He decided to try to bluff his way out of trouble. “I never had a drink, Judge,” he told the court. “Honest.”
If Judge Olivera suspected anything, he didn’t let on. Both men were veterans, and Olivera had come to know and admire Serna as he participated in the court’s program to help vets with drinking and addiction problems. Though their lives had gone in opposite directions since they’d left the military, they were still connected by their service. And that was what ate at Serna, what had brought him back to Olivera’s court a week after his lie. This guy is a fellow soldier, he told himself. I need to make this right. So Serna stood before Olivera and admitted quietly, “I lied.” As beads of perspiration rolled down his forehead, he said, this time a bit louder, “I lied, Judge. I was drinking.”
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After three tours of duty in Afghanistan, countless combat missions, two Purple Hearts, and the memories of way too many “best buddies” losing their lives, 39-year-old Joe Serna left the Army in 2013 with 18 years of service. By 2016, he was living in Fayetteville with his wife and three children and studying for an accounting degree at nearby Methodist University. But in truth, he had never really left the Army, and it certainly had never left him. The memories would lie low for a while, like a hidden enemy, only to reemerge in a nightmare or a tormenting flashback.
His wife, Rocio, had learned the warning signs: his cold sweats, the way he would tense his shoulders or cry out in the night. She was rarely surprised when he woke her up, thrashing in bed and whispering, “Bad guy … Bad guys.” Sometimes he’d kick and shout, “IED!” Then, “No! No!”
The flashbacks emerged, seemingly, from a thousand points of darkness. There was the time during Serna’s first tour in Afghanistan, in 2006, when his convoy was ambushed. Or the time when he threw a wounded comrade over his shoulder and carried him through heavy fire. As he would later explain, “He was my brother in arms. We never leave each other behind.”
Once, while he was interrogating a local Afghan with an interpreter, he suddenly heard a metallic click, followed by a telltale ping as something hit the floor. A suicide bomber had detonated a grenade that sent shrapnel through much of Serna’s body and face and knocked out his teeth. “If I had been a foot closer to the grenade, it would have killed me,” he recalls.
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Yet it was another incident that caused most of his nightmares. As part of a convoy, he and three other Special Forces soldiers were inside a 19-ton RG-31 mine-resistant truck, driving through Kandahar, Afghanistan, to recover a fallen brother who had died after stepping on a mine. Just after midnight, as they were driving along a pitch-black dirt road that was flanked by a canal, the narrow road gave way. The massive armored vehicle fell sideways, slipped down the bank, and toppled into the canal.
“The truck started filling with water, and I couldn’t release my seat belt,” remembers Serna. Helpless, he felt the water rising over his feet, then up to his knees, then his chest. His heart pounding, he heard his team members screaming for help as the water swallowed them up. This is it, he thought as he struggled to free himself. I’m going to die.
But then one of his brothers came to the rescue. “When the water had reached my chin, I felt a hand come down and unfasten my seat belt and release my body armor,” Serna says. “Sergeant James Treber picked me up and moved me to a pocket of air.”
The truck’s hydraulic system had been knocked out, so the doors wouldn’t budge. The soldiers were trapped. Because there was not enough space for both of them in the small air pocket, Treber dived into the water to find a larger one. Suddenly some fuel cans broke and contaminated Serna’s air pocket with gasoline. He passed out.
“I thought I’d died,” says Serna. “Someone pulled me out of the truck. When I came to, I saw three bodies lying on the ground. Everyone else in the truck, including Sergeant Treber, had died.” To this day, being stuck in a confined space can trigger flashbacks for Serna.
He was still in the military when doctors suggested to him that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He wanted to keep it quiet. He was a Green Beret, among the best of the best, and Special Forces types don’t like to admit weakness.
In truth, he was scared, afraid that the diagnosis could end his career. He turned to drink to quiet his demons.
Still, he never gave up the fight, and Judge Olivera knew that. On the day when Serna stood in the courtroom to admit he had lied about drinking, the judge wasn’t angry. He was moved.
“One of the main aims of the Veterans Treatment Court is to build trust and relationships with the veterans who appear before us,” Olivera says. “We are one big team—we are all veterans—and when one of us screws up, the rest of the team says, ‘You have to square yourself away.’”
He listened to Serna’s confession that day and decided on the punishment: one night in the Cumberland County jail.
The next afternoon, Olivera got a text telling him, “FYI, Joe Serna is reporting to jail today.” Olivera crossed the street to wish Serna luck. He found him highly agitated, his white T-shirt soaked with sweat.
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“You OK?” asked Olivera.
Serna, his eyes locked on the floor, mumbled an answer. Suddenly Olivera remembered the story of Serna’s rollover and the lingering claustrophobia it had caused. The judge asked the jailer whether he had an open cell, one with bars instead of cinder blocks and a door. He didn’t.
The judge turned to Serna and asked him, “Do you trust me?”
“Yes, sir,” said Serna.
“Then get in my car,” Olivera said.
He drove Serna to nearby Lumberton, North Carolina, where he knew the local chief of police.
An hour later, Joe Serna, dressed in a jail-issued orange jumpsuit, walked into a ten-by-seven-foot one-person cell in the Robeson County Detention Center. As the heavy steel door slammed behind him, Serna sat on the hard steel cot. He felt his shoulders tightening, his heart beating faster. He tried to fight the familiar feeling of dread, but as his body tensed, the gunmetal-gray walls began to close in on him.
He knew he would soon be flashing back to that armored truck, feeling helpless as the water rose up to his chin, reliving the horror of that night. His mind was racing. How do I get out of here? he thought. There is no way out!
Then the door jangled as the jailer unlocked it. Standing in the open doorway was Judge Olivera, carrying two dinner trays.
“OK, Joe, are you ready?” Olivera asked.
“Where are we going?” asked Serna.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” Olivera said. “We are staying here.”
Serna was confused. But a few minutes later, after the jailer brought in a two-inch-thick foam mattress and once again locked the heavy steel door behind him, Serna understood. The judge, a fellow veteran, realizing that this cell was no better than the first one, had decided to spend the night with a comrade in arms.
Olivera’s compassion nearly drove Serna to tears. But he managed to regain his composure enough to beg Olivera to take the cot and let him sleep on the floor.
“Judge, I can’t give you the floor,” he said.
“Call me Lou, Joe. And I have slept on the floor before. In fact, you and I have slept in worse places.”
They traded war stories as they tucked into jail-issued meat loaf and mashed potatoes. “Nasty stuff, isn’t it?” joked Olivera, cutting the tension in the cell. Serna told the judge about the day he was almost blown to bits by the Afghan suicide bomber, and he found himself actually laughing as he described the ping he’d heard when the grenade pin had hit the floor. Olivera laughed, too, sharing in a shade of black humor only a fellow veteran would understand.
The two talked for hours about their service, their families, and their hopes for the future. At around one in the morning, Olivera heard Serna’s breathing get deeper, and he eventually began to snore. He will be OK now, the judge said to himself as he rolled up his shirt into a makeshift pillow. He’ll be fine.
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Serna is due to graduate from Methodist University this May. Afterward, he will move to California with his wife and their children, Matthew, Efrain, and Andrea, to run his father’s construction company. (Matthew is named after the man who saved Serna’s life: Sgt. James Matthew Treber.)
For his part, Judge Olivera insists that any veteran would have reacted to Serna’s plight just as he did. He is fond of telling a story he once read about a veteran who was suffering from PTSD: “The veteran was in a deep hole. First his family threw down a rope, but he wouldn’t come out. Then his therapist threw down a rope, but again he didn’t come out.
Then his minister, with the same result. Finally, a second veteran came by, and he, too, threw down a rope. But this time, he climbed into the hole with the first vet. ‘What are you doing down here with me?’ the vet with PTSD asked. The second vet answered, ‘I’m here to climb out with you.’
“I’ve never forgotten that story, and I know that there are many veterans who would have done the same. These are our brothers. We never leave each other behind.”
Next, try these simple, but powerful ways that you can support veterans.